Monday, August 3, 2015

The Unreadable Face

He looked down from her, his expression unreadable.

She stared at them as they milled about with unreadable expressions.

I wish I could have told you, but her expression was unreadable.

My expression was probably unreadable, but I wasn’t about to change it.

.    .    .

When I read “unreadable,” the only face I see is frozen in a rictus, drooping forward as if its strings were cut. Unreadable expressions are things from Camazotz, artless and gray. There is no reward for reading them. Replace “unreadable” with an ellipsis, and you’d get the same information, lost in a realm of indescribable people, toneless music, indefinable clothing, and indistinguishable food.

Every time I read the unreadable face—and it pops up all sorts of stories, even among my favorite authors—I wonder what the writer and editors were thinking. Why choose to say nothing? Was it on purpose, or did it slip out? Was the emotion too complex? Was the character too tough to have a facial display? Was the narrator too poor a facial reader? Was the story in an inescapable corner? Were they aware of the irony of an unreadable expression in a readable medium?

Certainly there are legitimate reasons one might be tempted to use an unreadable expression. After all, most people aren’t very good at articulating nuances in a person’s face. But ask yourself first: what’s your process in reading an expression? You may conclude that a person’s face is unreadable, but do you jump to that conclusion instantly? No. If it were readable, one might respond immediately, but an unreadable face means that you are scrutinizing the face and cannot decide what it means. You analyze the tilt of the brow, the narrowness of the eyes, the tremor of the lips. And then your actions reflect the mood created by the other person’s face, “readable” or not. Because if science has told us anything about facial expressions, it’s that neuronormative human interactions are webbed with immediate, unconscious responses.

When you’re stuck with an unreadable expression, try one of the following:

· This is an opportunity for a “show, not tell” moment. Your character might not understand their object’s facial expression as a whole, but what is your character seeing? Are the lips thin? The nostrils wide? Write that. Imagine your reader like a toddler jumping up and down, shouting, but I wanna see! Don’t tell me it is unreadable. I’m a reader! TRY ME.

· Human response to faces is extremely swift: most of us respond in a matter of seconds. Often, though we cannot articulate what an expression tells us, we respond to it anyway. Consider implying the expression in the response.

· Divide the face between macroexpressions and microexpressions. A macroexpression involves the entire face, and is more or less universally understood. A microexpression is a fleeting change in the facial expression which might go unnoticed or be misinterpreted.

· Writing exercise: think of a facial expression for every letter of the alphabet. Choose literally any other descriptor for this person’s face. Examples:

Absent
Bleak
Coy
Downcast
Ecstatic
Fixed
Glowering
Haunted
Innocent
Justified
Keen
Languid
Mischievous
Nasty
Obdurate
Pitying
Quizzical
Radiant
Sardonic
Taut
Unconvincing
Vacant
Wan
Xenophobic
Yielding
Zealous

There. What’s your character’s face doing now?

Google "unreadable face." Yeah, I couldn't find a face without an expression
either. But I did find this happy fox, and it's always a good day to see a fox.

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